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Mugabe Starves Political Opponents By: Basildon Peta
Independent.co.uk | Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Zimbabwe has ordered the United Nations and other relief agencies to surrender their emergency food aid to ruling party officials.

The move, revealed yesterday, may be designed to ensure President Robert Mugabe's regime can resume food aid deliveries, which could then be used as a political weapon to punish opponents in the run-up to provincial and district elections. Representatives of aid agencies, who had won agreement from the government to distribute aid without interference, expressed shock at the decision.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is among agencies that had insisted on distributing its own food aid after President Mugabe denied food to people accused of supporting the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

In a surprise directive to the UN food agency and its partner aid agencies, July Moyo, the public service, labour and social welfare minister, ordered them to hand food to local Zanu-PF party officials.

Mr Moyo said beneficiaries of food aid were now to be selected from the village, ward and neighbourhood committee registers. These structures are all staffed by supporters of Mr Mugabe.

"Where the food is delivered ... the ward and village food distribution committees, with the assistance of local government structures, will be responsible for the physical distribution of food," Mr Moyo's directive said. "No international donor can tell us that the government should not be involved in food distribution when we are the ones who asked for the food in the first place," he added.

The WFP office in Harare said it was consulting its partner NGOs and Zimbabwe government authorities on the practical implications of the decision. The WFP has been feeding part of the 3.3 million Zimbabweans it estimates to be in need of emergency aid. The number is expected to rise to about 5.5 million - nearly half the population - in a few months after pockets of harvests from this year's agricultural season are exhausted.

Mass famine in Zimbabwe has been averted only by donor agencies chipping in with relief food to fill the gap caused by Mr Mugabe's campaign of seizing productive white-owned farms for redistribution, mainly to his cronies. The WFP recently said that although food supplies in many southern African countries had improved, it remained dire in Zimbabwe. About 60 per cent of food aid from the West to southern Africa now goes to Zimbabwe.

Mr Mugabe's attempts to take charge of food distribution are being made shortly after the European Union donated €25m (£17m) to help in the relief effort in Zimbabwe.

The MDC said Mr Mugabe's food aid directive was part of a wider plot to rig the provincial and district elections due in two weeks. "The whole idea is for the regime to ensure that it starves to death all those who are likely to vote for the opposition," said an MDC agriculture spokesman. "We have seen this brutal victimisation of opponents of this regime before and donors must stand up and say no to the politicisation of their food relief."

Recent by-elections have shown the opposition, which commands popular support in urban areas, gaining ground in rural districts, usually Mr Mugabe's power base, because of the mounting economic problems that have seen the inflation rate reach 364 per cent.

Mr Mugabe's desire to take full charge of aid relief is seen as a ploy to reassert himself in these areas by using food as a political weapon. Last year, ruling party thugs seized donated food, forcing relief agencies to suspend distribution in the affected constituencies.

The President has been taking steps to secure his personal wealth in the event that he retires from office. He has signed legislation that pegs his pension benefits to the salary and benefits of any sitting president. The wording of the new law is such that only Mr Mugabe and his family qualify for the generous pension benefits.

It disqualifies his predecessor, Canaan Banana, who served as President until 1987 when Mr Mugabe overthrew him and combined the roles of President and Prime Minister.

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